I’d been avoiding Ahmed all week; he needed to speak to me. I didn’t need to speak to him. If the shop was busy and he had customers I would be able to slip past without him seeing me, I hurried my pace; I risked a glance into the shop and couldn’t see him, then just as I thought I had got away he was standing directly in front of me. Ya John, my brother he chirped and leant in to kiss my cheeks, Ahmed I was just looking for you I said.
It was the summer of 2003 and I had just rented a dilapidated house in the heart of Damascus. Ahmed was Egyptian and we had bonded over stories of Cairo, since our first meeting he called me his brother. He had to leave Cairo because of a dispute with some of his colleagues in the drug supply trade, he had been shot and happily showed me the scar on his stomach. Needless to say I was quite impressed. It was his morning off work and I agreed to have a glass of tea with him so we walked past the two best cafes in Damascus to a dismal alley and his one roomed apartment.
The room was mostly brown, sparse and very neat, the single bed made and coat of dust on every surface. I picked a small framed photograph, Ahmed wearing a long trench coat posing in the snow in front of the statue of Salah al-Din al-Ayubbi, the Kurdish hero whose mortal remains are entombed in a shrine a few hundred meters from where we were sitting. The day I arrived in Damascus he said referring to the picture and handing me the glass of undrinkable tea.
He started to ramble on about art and me being an artist I would understand; I had no idea what he was talking about. His English would drift between eloquent and unintelligible. It’s our big chance he said. I picked up a small hunting knife and removed the blade from its sheath, wow, is this yours? I asked wondering what other weapons he may have. It’s yours he said, no, I can’t, please you are my brother you must have it. I said of course I can’t accept it. I said I really must be getting along; I downed the tea and left with a mouthful of tea leaves and the hunting knife protruding from my pocket.
Over the next couple of weeks I would bump into Ahmed and he would always mention the art thing and ask when I would be free, anytime I would say and still have no clue what he was talking about. Eventually after he had assured me it would only take fifteen minutes of my time I gave in and agreed to meet him the next morning, just fifteen minutes he said time and time again.
As I strolled down the slope of Talet al Adi Ahmed was waiting on the corner, he was wearing a blue business suit and looking at his watch as though I was late, he was in an unusually serious mood. Nobody does drug deals at nine in the morning I reassured myself, it will only take fifteen minutes he had said.
We didn’t seem to have time for the customary greetings; Ahmed nodded to two other guys waiting on the other corner; they were stocky and short and had Turkic features, they could have been twins. One was speaking on a mobile phone, rare and expensive in Syria in 2003, when he stopped speaking Ahmed asked for the phone, he looked at it and then slipped it into his jacket pocket; I should keep this he said to the twin, the twin just shrugged and we all set of.
The Old City was just waking up, the shops in the Souk were only just beginning to open, the incessant dust was being brushed from carpets and doorsteps, tea was being boiled and bread being bought. The morning dappled sunlight was falling between the vines. None of which we noticed as we strode along the narrow street.
We emerged from the shaded Souk into the glare of Bab Touma; car horns and chaos. Waiting beyond the arched Roman gate was a small white van, the Driver slouching on the bonnet smoking. Ahmed glanced over his shoulder at me and nodded, I nodded back. I don’t recall any greetings; Ahmed removed his jacket, folded it carefully and asked me to hold it as I took the front passenger seat and the others crawled into the back, I have the phone said Ahmed. It wasn’t his or mine so why this mattered I have no idea, but then I had no idea why I was even sitting in the van. Fifteen minutes had now elapsed.
The Driver, keen to show his automotive skills weaved through the busy traffic of the eastern suburbs and onto the Homs highway, a road I had travelled many times, a road I thought I would probably die on, an Indy 500 of lawless commuters, the Driver shifted down and we sped forward.
An hour had passed and finally we turned off the highway, we wound our way into Yabrud, a town sitting in the lap of the Anti-Lebanon, the sight of the mountains lifted my spirits, perhaps this would turn out to be pleasant day-trip, a picnic perhaps. We made our way through the town, past elegant houses with bougainvillea or something pink and flowery flowing over the high walls, the car slowed and we pulled up beside villa, understated and with the shutters down, a group of men wearing leather jackets and ominous slacks were standing at the entrance, a couple more were on the other side of the street leaning against a parked car. Fucking hell I thought, it is a drug deal and I’m the bag-man.
I handed Ahmed his jacket and we followed one of the heavies into the house, our paunchy host greeted us in a crowded dining room, the table filled the room and art filled the walls, we squeezed past the furniture into a living room of sorts, our host gestured for us to sit and sent for tea, I manoeuvred myself into the corner, Ahmed on a chaise lounge, our knees pressed against coffee tables, every inch of wall space was covered with artwork, my eyes flicked from image to image without registering details, the frames were often mismatched and crooked.
Ahmed had introduced me as an art expert from London, infinity preferable to drug mule, especially with my constitution. As tea was consumed and coffee summoned conversation had taken a somewhat surreal turn. I was back in school, I hadn’t been paying attention to class and now I was being asked a question. All eyes were now on me; Ahmed was asking me what I thought, I nodded in faked agreement, he stared at me and tipped his head towards the art, go on he said, do your stuff. Oh right, yeah, my stuff, I stood up for a closer inspection of the art, my hands clasped behind my back, I leaned in and went from picture to picture, very impressive I said stepping back and trying to avoid knocking over the cluttered coffee tables, I was thinking of mentioning brush strokes or use of tone and colour when my attention suddenly focused on a signature that read Picasso, I sat back down, I looked up at the meter wide or so painting hanging above Ahmed and said; Picasso; our host nodded in approval, clearly I knew my stuff, I reached for my coffee and noticed a Goya wedged into the corner, the room was floor to ceiling Old Masters and I would be using my extensive foreign connections to find buyers for them, my esteemed Egyptian colleague would handle the smuggling, how could this possibly go wrong.
Probably fakes I thought to myself as we all shook hands; we were all looking forward to doing business together. Ahmed straightened his jacket, checked the phone, slapped me on the back and we sped back to Damascus, I spent most of the journey wondering who I know that would buy a stolen Picasso.
No sooner home I got straight to work; I typed ‘stolen Picasso’ into the search engine, the first hits were for the FBI and Interpol, I searched their data bases but didn’t recognize any of the missing art, another result was a news article about the capture of smuggler just over the border in Turkey. Was the art genuine of fake I kept wondering, where had it all come from? Smuggling has always been big business near the Syrian borders and Yabrud was very close to the Lebanese border, war has a habit of fuelling these trades and Lebanon had suffered its fair share. The notoriously porous border with Iraq was a long drive through the desert, these days mostly busy with Jihadists.
I tried to explain to Ahmed the seriousness of what he was contemplating, in return he kept reminding me, his brother, that this was our big chance; should I think of someone with a spare the odd several million dollars I would mention it I assured him.
Time passed and Ahmed gave up on me and he eventually disappeared from the Old City, there were various rumours as to what had happened to him, some involved the secret police. I have no idea what happened to the villa in Yabrud that seemed to house more fine art than the National Museum. I often saw the Turkic Twins around the Old City, they avoided eye contact.
Several Years later: A coffee shop conversation with a Syrian friend who knew the story-
Syrian Friend; did you hear Monzer has been arrested?
Me; who is Monzer?
Syrian Friend; Monzer al Kassar
Me; go on?
Syrian Friend; you went to his house that time in Yabrud.
Monzer al Kassar International arms dealer;
Aka the Prince of Marbella
Aka the Peacock
‘Just remember, when you look into his eyes,’ said one former western official, who does not want his name used, ‘you’ll be looking into pure evil.’
Monzer al Kassar was captured in a DEA sting operation in Spain and is now serving a life sentence in United States Penitentiary, Marion Illinois.
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John Wreford is a professional photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey.